Historic Tools Explored To Save Monomoy Theatre

By: Tim Wood

The Monomoy Theatre. FILE PHOTO 

CHATHAM – Faced with an unknown buyer and uncertainty over the future of a key parcel of downtown property, officials and residents are looking to historic preservation tools to provide some control over the Monomoy Theatre property.

At its March 5 meeting, the historical commission will consider asking the Massachusetts Historical Commission to determine if the Monomoy property is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Securing an eligibility ruling could allow the Cape Cod Commission to review any project proposed for the 2.7-acre property, which would likely lead to preservation of historic structures there.

“The entire property is already significantly protected” because it is within the historic business district, which can also require preservation of the buildings, Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina said. But with no word on who is buying the property or what its future holds, the commission felt it was “not a bad idea to be a little bit proactive,” he said.

The theater property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot St. is listed as under agreement to be sold by real estate broker LandVest, with an April 30 closing. The prospective buyer has not been identified. The Steindler Family Trust, which owns the property, listed it for sale for $3.95 million in January. The property has hosted a theater since the 1930s, and has operated as a summer program for college students since 1958.

Despite making an offer on the property, theater supporters have been frozen out of the process and say they have no idea who the buyer is. The University of Hartford, whose lease on the property expires March 31, informed the owners late last year that it would not be renewing the agreement due at least in part to the owners' refusal to upgrade the property. A town inspection last summer revealed numerous health and safety violations in the theater's dorm rooms; theater supporters say those could be taken care of relatively easily with available donated funds. However, nothing can be done without a lease or ownership of the property by theater supporters.

If the new buyer backs out on or after March 31, it would be too late to have a complete 10-week summer season, Artistic Director Alan Rust said. If that happens sooner – within the next two weeks or so – it might be possible to pull some sort of season together, he added; however, most summer theaters are hiring their companies now, so time is of the essence.

If the situation changes after March 31 and the theater is allowed to remain on the property, the summer could be used to renovate and property to meet the requirements of the town and prepare for a 2020 season, he said.

“It's very hard to know what can happen when we don't know what the future of the property holds,” said Rust, who will be at the theater at the end of March to remove lighting and other equipment and place it in storage in case the theater reopens.

At least two of the seven buildings on the property are historic. A section of the theater building, once used as a toy factory, dates from around 1800, and the double gable-end Greek Revival house was built around 1840.

Along with the National Register tack, the possibility has been raised of declaring the property a District of Critical Planning Concern through the Cape Cod Commission. Resident and former finance committee member Roselyn Coleman made the suggestion to town officials and asked selectmen to place it on an upcoming agenda. But Chairman of Selectmen Dean Nicastro said after consulting with town counsel, he has decided not to put the request on the agenda because the property is subject to a private business arrangement.

According to the Cape Cod Commission website, a district of critical planning concern, or DCPC, is a “powerful planning tool that allows a town or a group of town to impose a moratorium – a 'time out' – on certain types of development or activities in a specific area, to plan for and adopt special rules and regulations that will protect natural, coastal, scientific, cultural, architectural, archaeological, historic, economic or recreational resources or values of regional, statewide or national significance.”

A DCPC is nominated by a board of selectmen, historical commission, planning board, board of health or conservation commission. A moratorium on certain developments or types of activities goes into effect when the nomination is made. The commission then votes to consider the nomination and after an extensive public hearing process makes a recommendation on a DCPC designation to the assembly of delegates and the Barnstable County Commission. If those bodies approve the DCPC, implementation regulations developed by the nominating community are created.

There are currently 12 DCPCs, according to the commission's website, including the Six Ponds District in Harwich.

Next Tuesday the historical commission will discuss hiring a historic consultant to update the historic inventory form on the property and confirm that it is eligible for listing on the National Register. Messina said a previous consultant had concurred that the theater building and the double house that fronts on Main Street met the listing criteria. If the Massachusetts Historical Commission concurs, it would be “another arrow in the quiver” to protect the property, he said.

“I think it can only help to protect the property from destruction or significant change,” Messina said.

Even though he opted not to put the DCPC discussion on the selectmen's agenda, Nicastro said he is worried about the future of the property and finds it confounding that the identity of the buyer remains shrouded in mystery.

“There are going to be a lot of unhappy people in town if the Monomoy Theatre closes,” said Nicastro. “I'll be one of them.”

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